Paragraph 22 reads: "When the news broke he fled over the garden wall and drove to Cornwall while Belinda took the children to Austria skiing. Depression soon took hold. 'I was just drowning. I was totally out of control in my mind. There was no immediate sense of perspective for months. Each day was about survival with sleeping tablets and Prozac'.”
From The Times
September 19, 2009
Mark Oaten: my dark days should serve as a warning to other politicians
Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson
Mark Oaten is sitting in his eyrie in Westminster, wearing a blue and white striped shirt, sipping from a carton of Ribena and ruminating on the mental health of MPs.
Three years ago this clean-cut Home Counties Liberal Democrat pin-up was exposed by the News of the World for making regular visits to rent boys. Overnight he saw his leadership ambitions destroyed and his marriage almost disintegrate. Now he has written a book, Screwing Up, describing the emotional pressures and psychological flaws that lead politicians to self-destruct.
As we talk for more than an hour he is frank about his battle with depression, his midlife crisis, the sex abuse that he suffered as a child and the craving for love that he thinks drives people into politics. Since his exposure, he has been amazed, he says, by how many of his parliamentary colleagues have opened up about their own problems.
“So many have had similar experiences in terms of feeling very depressed and struggling with their marriages. You get any group of MPs together now and they will talk about how down they get. It’s worse than other professions. One of the reasons for writing the book was to explain the pressures on MPs.”
From the moment Mr Oaten won his Winchester seat by two votes in 1997, he was marked out as a rising star. But he quickly became overwhelmed by the demands on his time.
“I never stopped getting into a dinner jacket, going to annual dinners, being on Newsnight, attending Remembrance services. It was relentless,” he says. “It has a huge impact on you as a human being. I felt that everyone owned me. I got worn out and grumpy. I was living on adrenalin, fire-fighting the whole time. I had the constituency and Westminster. The family was always left to last. I had endless rows with my wife, Belinda.”
For almost a decade, he found it impossible to stop. “I felt I was on an escalator. The ego element came into it. I couldn’t say no. It is almost an addiction, a drug. It was as if I injected myself with an adrenalin burst to get through an hour-long episode of Question Time and then I would pay the price afterwards with stomach aches and other pains. I was always ill.”
Even before the scandal broke, when he was the frontbench home affairs spokesman, he was regularly taking antidepressants. He thinks at least a fifth of MPs have mental problems, although he says: “Round here it is a taboo subject. Very few will admit to not coping with the stress. You can’t be vulnerable or weak if you are waiting for the next promotion.”
There is, he says, “something in the DNA of politicians which makes them vulnerable to mood swings and being depressed. They are likely to be obsessive, risk-taking and slightly depressive”.
His explanation is that certain character flaws make people want to stand for Parliament. “My risk-taking makes me a good politician and a bad one. But the risk element is only one side. It is even more common for MPs to need to be loved. Ego and needing to be liked are dangerous traits.”
Many MPs are, he believes, damaged souls. “You seek your parents’ approval, then your family’s, then the party’s and then the voters’. I see politicians in their early thirties doing exactly what I was doing running around the television studios, checking their BlackBerries, taking every opportunity. I want to say, ‘Calm down, go home to your family’. I wish someone had said that to me.”
The pressure is, in his view, made worse by the difficulty in making real friendships at Westminster. “There is a bonding between MPs, but it can’t be genuine you are always ultimately competing. You are rivals.” He hopes that his memoirs will serve as a warning to other politicians. “I would like them to learn from someone who screwed it up and got it wrong.”
Mr Oaten’s downfall was spectacular. When he saw two journalists outside his front door one morning in January 2006 he had no idea that they had discovered his liaisons with male prostitutes. After speaking to them he had to go inside and tell his wife everything while their two young daughters carried on having breakfast in the next room. Even now he cannot quite explain it to himself, let alone to her.
“Everyone is desperate for an easy answer about why I went to an escort. I had doubts about my sexuality, I wanted to experiment, I was stressed out, feeling low about getting older. The press kept talking about the fact I was losing my hair. I was feeling out of love with myself.”
The rent boy was 23. “I wanted to recapture my youth and be near a young person it was important that he was younger. I had a belly appearing and bags under my eyes. I wanted to experiment with younger people. It is not uncommon for 40-year-olds to want to experiment sexually.”
He found the number at the back of a magazine. “It was very late at night when I went to his flat, there was an element of risk-taking. I knew it was dangerous, there was an adrenalin element.”
Over the next six months he visited regularly. The News of the World said that he enjoyed three-in-a-bed “romps” and “humiliation”. “We never actually had intercourse. We talked, had a conversation about where he lived, but I was only there for about half an hour each time. We didn’t watch TV or relax together. He had a flatmate that was the other one. He didn’t become a friend. I don’t even know his real name.”
There were lurid allegations made, which he says are untrue. “There were the most graphic descriptions on websites about what had happened, which were wrong but I couldn’t sue. It would drag everything up.” It was almost a relief to him when the story came out. “I could get counselling, talk to Belinda and try to feel more comfortable about who I am.”
His wife is a farmer’s daughter from Hampshire who was stunned by his revelation but eventually agreed to stay with him. “She knows that I am not some six-foot-four rugby-playing macho guy. I am comfortable being around gay friends this wasn’t some very heterosexual guy who went off and did this.”
He had never had any gay experiences in his teenage years but he reveals in the book that he was sexually abused as a child. “It was a two-year period when I was 9 and 10. It was clearly inappropriate and involved me sexually massaging a conside
rably older man. It felt perfectly normal; it is so obviously not.”
Psychotherapy has taught him that people often subconsciously try to re-create their first sexual experience. “The theory is that if it was shameful and guilty you will try to re-create that but I’m reluctant to say this explains [what I did] because I don’t think it’s the whole reason.”
When the news broke he fled over the garden wall and drove to Cornwall while Belinda took the children to Austria skiing. Depression soon took hold. “I was just drowning. I was totally out of control in my mind. There was no immediate sense of perspective for months. Each day was about survival with sleeping tablets and Prozac.”
After three years of counselling, his marriage is still together but he says that it has changed. “We are best friends but there is no doubt in my mind that the marriage is not how it was. It’s just a different relationship and it always will be.
“What’s happened has changed us fundamentally. There are trust issues. We’re not the innocent couple that got married in 1992.”
He doesn’t know whether his gay experimentation was a phase. “It’s part of me. I’m not one thing or the other on the spectrum. [Belinda and I] haven’t made promises or pledges to each other. We’re very realistic about how we are doing as a couple.”
So might he do it again?
“I’ve been very blunt with her in terms of my feelings. I’m comfortable with where I am, with the kids and my home life but I’m not going to start making some great renewal of marriage vows. It doesn’t feel right for where we are at the moment.”
At Westminster, and in the constituency, people were broadly supportive. “They said, ‘You’ve been an idiot but you’re still a good MP’.”
During the expenses row, MPs sought him out and asked him how to deal with public vilification.
“A lot of colleagues came up to me and said, ‘Now we know what you went through’. I gave them some cuddles and I gave them some tears. There were some very upset people. I think some were [suicidal]. Politicians have been banned from complaining about this but I’m happy to say that whatever the wrongs and rights of the situation there were some MPs who were pushed close to the limit in what they could take emotionally. It’s the toughest ever time to be an MP.”
He is leaving the Commons at the next election but has one piece of advice for his old friend Nick Clegg at the start of the Liberal Democrat conference this weekend. If there is a hung Parliament, he should not allow the Liberal Democrats to prop up Gordon Brown.
“What I would say to Nick is that you have to recognise that some in the Conservative Party might represent the forces of progressive politics. When I look back on issues to do with ID cards, control orders, terror suspects our liberal allies were the Conservatives.”
Mr Oaten is looking for a new career. He has just finished filming a TV documentary about living in a tower block for Channel 4. Now he is looking for company directorships and charity jobs. “I said no to going into the jungle for I’m a Celebrity … and to taking part in Celebrity Wife Swap because I was nervous but not because I thought they were beneath me. I don’t think people should be snotty about things like that because it’s a piece of fun. I look at Neil and Christine Hamilton and I think, ‘Good for them’. They found themselves in this situation and they coped and got in with it and did their thing.”
Screwing Up by Mark Oaten is published by Biteback, Sept 25; £18.99